Children whose parents are in prison experience trauma at alarming rates. Meanwhile, parents who are in prison struggle to rehabilitate themselves. Preserving the parent-child relationship is often the  strongest motivator for incarcerated parents to stay on the path to reentry and for children to stay connected to parents who care for them.

Children whose parents are in prison experience trauma at alarming rates. Meanwhile, parents who are in prison struggle to rehabilitate themselves. Preserving the parent-child relationship is often the  strongest motivator for incarcerated parents to stay on the path to reentry and for children to stay connected to parents who care for them.

Current Child Welfare Policy Makes Children of Incarcerated Parents Uniquely Vulnerable to Forever Losing Their Families

Federal law currently requires that the child welfare agency must, with few exceptions, petition to permanently sever the parent-child relationship once a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. When this law was enacted in 1997, the United States was undergoing a rapid expansion in its use of incarceration, and the average length of prison sentences was also increasing. The combination of shortened foster care stays and lengthier and more frequent incarcerations has led to a dramatic and troubling increase in the number of children who lose their parents forever due to parental incarceration.  

The best interests of children are not always served by the loss of all connection to their parent whenever the parent’s sentence exceeds fifteen months. Yet strict adherence to federal timelines can and does result in the permanent destruction of loving parent-child relationships despite the parent’s best efforts from jail. Several states have begun to recognize the law’s harsh impact on children of incarcerated parents and have amended their laws to ensure that termination of parental rights is pursued only when it is truly in the best interest of the child.  For example, New York’s Chapter 113 of 2010 offers an exception to the 15-month termination of parental rights filing requirement when the parent is incarcerated and makes efforts to maintain a meaningful parent-child relationship, so long as TPR is not otherwise in the child’s best interest. So do laws in Washington State and California. But most children of incarcerated parents in foster care in most states remain subject to rigid and harsh federal timelines that fail to allow for individualized consideration of their family circumstances.

We recommend amending federal law to ensure that termination of parental rights is pursued for children of incarcerated parents only when it is truly in their best interest.  

To get involved with the working group on this issue, please contact Kathleen Creamer at KCreamer@clsphila.org, chair of UFA subcommittee working on ASFA issues, including children of incarcerated parents, or use the contact form on this web page.